The Biggest Losers: What happened after the glitz and glory?
Like many adults, I easily gain weight and I struggle to lose it. I grew up in a fat family—we were always on some new diet. I remember the 1960’s version of the Atkins diet. We were instructed to eat huge portions of meat, which all of us loved. I don’t remember if we lost any weight, although I am sure that our cholesterol went through the ceiling!
Like most overweight adults, I was fascinated with the reality TV show The Biggest Loser because it turned the arduous task of losing weight into a theatrical contest, like Survivor. Of course, it didn’t hurt to have an army of personal trainers, dieticians and coaches at the ready. Some of these very obese individuals lost hundreds of pounds. Several went on to fame and fortune.
But a researcher followed these contestants for six years after the glitz and glory ended. The sad news, probably not totally surprising, was that they almost all gained the weight back—and then some.
It’s well known that after a period of intense dieting, our “resting metabolism” slows down. It’s as if our bodies think that we’re starving and so it turns down the rate at which we burn calories. It kept many of our hunter-gatherer ancestors alive during lean times.
However, the surprising finding of this study was that the slowed metabolism of the biggest losers did not recover, even after several years. They required fewer calories just to maintain their weight, and therefore it became extremely difficult for them to sustain their weight loss.
These contestants also battled increased hunger after they won the contest. Leptin is one of several hormones that control hunger. At the beginning of the contest, the participants had normal levels of leptin. But by the end, they produced almost no leptin at all. The net effect—they were ravenous.
The findings of this study, although not definitive, suggest that body is more powerful than the mind. That’s both good and bad news. Our physiology is fighting against our will power on several fronts. Our weight gain after a diet is not a moral failure. We have no reason to feel shame. It’s the way our bodies are wired. Frustrating, yes—but there’s no need to feel guilty.
- Don’t diet— instead, make thoughtful food choices. Apparently, restricting calories or food groups doesn’t work out very well in the long run, as most of us experienced dieters know. If we limit carbs, after a couple of months we crave bread and pasta. If we stop eating ice cream entirely, all we can think about is a hot fudge sundae.
- Weigh yourself regularly. In my most recent regimen, I am weighing myself several times a week. It keeps me honest and in touch with reality. If I see my weight creeping up, I focus on my food choices and portion sizes. A food diary, readily available on www.myfitnesspal.com, increases awareness of what and how much I am eating.
- Walk, walk and walk some more. This is difficult in our car-centered lives. It takes awareness and commitment to put in the extra steps on a weekly basis. For some, (apparently not me), fitness trackers can add that extra motivation and kick to your step. It takes me a lot of exercise to make up for the eight hours a day I spend on my rear end.
- Be realistic. That means be patient. Make your health journey a long-term enterprise, which is going to have its ups and downs. Take baby steps and work on making them habits. Look for the small changes that you can most easily make—and sustain.
The Biggest Loser motivated many heavy adults to hit the gym and eat more sensibly. But the quick and dirty approach doesn’t work in the long run. Our bodies won’t hear of it.